The consequences of ‘gagging’ Trump

GUEST POST: Mario Creatura is Head of Strategic and Digital Communications at Virgin Money. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.

Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?

While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.

This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).

For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.

This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?

Too little, too late?

In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?

His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’

The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?

The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.

After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.

What’s next?

While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.

For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.

For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.

Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?

The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?

It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.

Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.

For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.

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This piece was written for Influence.

Corporate reputation management

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. 

This time yesterday, I was co-hosting an event, on behalf of the PRCA Corporate Group, which posed the question: When should business #TakeAStance? And in the spirit of doing things differently, we wanted to keep it brief yet engaging. The 45-minute session began with a video snapshot of 2020’s political, economic and social events and how organisations responded to them, before moving onto a lively discussion and Q&A.

With thanks to Westminster Digital for the production and to all participants, including Natasha Jones, Head of Communications and Policy at Funding Circle; Paul Holmes, Founder & Chair of PRovoke; and Rebecca Donnelly, my fellow co-chair and UEA graduate.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because I’m of the opinion that, while some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by its external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

For those of you interested in my perspective here’s a quick snapshot. Like many other Conservatives in Communications, I closely follow current affairs and keep our supporters and my clients informed about what’s on and coming up on the horizon. While they are proactive in terms of taking a stance and communicating it internally, they are more reserved or opposed to communicating it externally. Why so?

To strike a balance, what I suggest is asking yourself four business-level questions:

1. What’s the purpose of my business?

2. Will taking a stand negatively or positively impact our purpose?

3. Will taking a stand hinder our future ability to attract and/ or retain customers and employees?

4. Does this issue rise to the level of a core issue vs a preference?

Should your business take a stance or not? That’s up to you! Sometimes the answer will be yes. More often it will be no. But, before you rush into supporting a position go through the process I have just outlined.

This piece was written for do Different.

We’re optimistic about the future, but the MSM must up its game

A survey conducted by Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for over 435 professionals, reveals that its supporters are optimistic about the future of the sector (7.24 out of 10), with 99% in employment. The positive findings come as the Government looks to ease lockdown measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This in spite of 62% feeling that the mainstream media (MSM) is not providing balanced and unbiased reporting. Bloomberg and the BBC ranked as the most trustworthy news brands while Al Jazeera and Russia Today ranked as the least trustworthy.

The group, which is marking one year since it was relaunched by its chair Katie Perrior and principal director Adam Honeysett-Watts, has been encouraging supporters – including 23 parliamentary patrons – to take part in its inaugural Census 2020. In addition to its industry patrons, a new tier of Tory peers and MPs – who have previously worked or have an interest in communications (public affairs, PR, policy, digital, marketing, events, journalism or publishing) – have recently signed-up. The team has also been widened to build out its offering to young conservatives and to get more women involved.

Survey respondents were largely positive about the Government’s original ‘Stay home’ message (4.49 out of 5). They scored all nine aspects of the daily press briefings, such as stage management and inviting the public to submit their questions, as effective; with the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised as the most impressive performer. That said, there is little appetite for the conferences to become a permanent fixture. Further, supporters were invited to submit ideas for a new slogan or comment on the ‘Stay alert’ message. Of those who did, 69% proposed an alternative, which may have contributed to a lower score of 3.18 out of 5 for the Government’s overall strategy.

Turning to other topics. While 73% of participants benefited from flexible working and / or working from home (WFH) before the pandemic began, 90% will be advocating for this post-lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supporters do not miss commuting to and from work (77%), and many used this available time to spend with the family and to ‘think’ more about their work. Professionals have adapted quite well to the changes with 44% saying they have been more productive, especially when it comes to producing written materials for both internal and external clients. 42% said they’re more active while 41% have reallocated earnings.

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at Number 10, said:

“Our supporters have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the global pandemic. That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships. Although the many technologies – for example, Microsoft Teams and Zoom – have worked much better than expected, they are no substitute for face-to-face. Survey respondents cited less time with colleagues (60%) and friends (45%) as reasons they like least about WFH. I too, look forward to seeing my colleagues and clients as well as family and friends, in-person, very soon.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts said:

“We spotted an opportunity to relaunch and grow CiC into a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent resource, and the pandemic has shown how much one is needed. While industry networking is the main reason our supporters joined us and continue to be involved, there is appetite for us to offer more. That includes advertising job opportunities (63%), sharing industry news (61%), connecting with our parliamentary patrons (59%), widening blog content (55%) as well as offering careers advice and mentoring opportunities (50%). Many of these are already in the works, including the latter, where 72% of supporters cited interest in being mentors.”

Note to Editors

You can learn more about the survey and access all of the results here.

As covered by PRWeek.

Has social media become more caring during Covid-19?

GUEST POST: Jonny Piper is a digital and creative communications expert, most recently working on the Conservatives General Election Campaign. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

The British pub quiz is one of life’s simple pleasures. Pull together a few friends, pick a team name and enjoy an evening racking your brain; how many moons does Saturn have? Who was the oldest UK Prime Minister to leave office?

And that’s how I spent last Thursday, while enjoying a rather lovely house red. Normally to be avoided, except in this case the house red meant just that – pouring myself a glass while sat at my kitchen table, listening to the – questions at home via WebEx, conferring with friends over Microsoft Teams and clinking glasses with my webcam.

Matt Hancock says coronavirus ‘thrives on social contact’, with social distancing measures a necessary mechanism to slow down the spread of infection. But we too also thrive on social contact, feeding off it to work, learn and grow.  So, it’s no wonder that the ability to continue communicating digitally with friends, family and colleagues has been so crucial and shouldn’t be taken for granted. What on earth would we be doing right now if not for the internet and social media to keep us working, connected, informed and entertained?

I’ve watched this seamless connectivity bring out the best of humanity: caring and compassionate communities that are using digital and social media to bring people together and look out for those in need. Across social media you’ll find businesses innovating and finding new ways of working, an army of digitally co-ordinated volunteers caring for the vulnerable, and individuals channelling their creativity to keep us entertained.

I almost daren’t say it, but I’ve also watched as social media has become more caring. The tone of our conversations is more empathetic. Businesses are abandoning competitive thinking and instead selflessly looking to philanthropy. Party politics and the online vitriol that so often follows has been replaced by a country unified in willing the government to succeed in combatting the virus.

And it’s that spirit which has made this technology so critical; my phone and laptop have become my eyes. WhatsApp and FaceTime have become ears. In isolation, social media has become my integral connection to the world, my lifeline. And in Britain today, the spirit of the Blitz isn’t found while crammed onto an underground station platform as the sirens sound, but instead found in Instagram Stories across the country as the nation pours out its support for our incredible NHS workers with an ocean of applause.

Yet there are constant reminders of the world beyond the screen. Netflix nudges us after a few hours of binge-watching to check that we’re still conscious, and tech companies have added ‘screen time’ features to remind us to step back and look up at the world around us. A digital lockdown, it seems, regularly taunts us of what we’re missing.

We don’t yet know what world we will find ourselves in post-coronavirus. Social media might suggest that we’ll be a more caring and considerate society, and I certainly hope that’s true. But I also hope that we’ll be more digitally aware, learning to switch off more and appreciate IRL contact. I, for one, will be making a meaningful effort to engage with the world around me and not get distracted by a vibrating pocket. Phones off everyone, the quiz is starting!

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This piece was written for our website.

The X factor?

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

I’d already made-up my mind – before the leadership election got underway – to back Boris Johnson. After three long years of doom and gloom, I was desperate for someone to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity, and luckily – for everyone – the Party membership agreed.

Before casting my vote, I chose to speed read as much as I could about him. I did this for three reasons: personal intrigue, due diligence and ammunition, because many of my closest political friends were wavering or had chosen to support Jeremy Hunt. It’ll come as no surprise that London conservatives often differ in opinions from those of Tories in Yorkshire and Norfolk…

Among the books that I got through were ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’ by Andrew Gimson and ‘Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity’ by Sonia Purnell. Page-turners, yet no earth-shattering revelations inside. Neither of them persuaded me otherwise. Here was a man, determined to make it and full of optimism. I was sold. I also recognise this as a quality and an attitude that several of our new MPs have. Exciting times.

One book I didn’t get to until Christmas was his very own ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’. While Gimson and Purnell shed light on his past, here Johnson exposes his admiration for the national treasure and where he may take inspiration in the future. I thoroughly recommend it to Conservatives in Communications.

Churchill and Johnson share more than a few similarities. Both have American ties: one was half American by birth, one was born in New York. Both went to top public schools: one Harrow, one Eton. Both became journalists, writers and politicians; often multi-tasking between all three and using colourful language while doing so! Both developed as orators, having already perfected the written word. Indeed, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his many published works. Both represented multiple constituencies and served in two great offices of state: one as Chancellor of the Exchequer, one as Foreign Secretary. Both refined their images and appealed beyond traditional Conservative voters; championing the working class or blue-collar workers. Both would deploy their good-humoured, self-depricating formula to cheer-up the nation during two turbulent periods: the Second World War and us leaving the European Union.

As I have said before, optimism isn’t everything. A detailed vision must be articulated and executed by a sound team. That happened during the recent campaign and the result provided a mandate. After we’ve left the EU later this month, expect there to be a reshuffle of ministers (hopefully this includes promotions from the 2019 intake) and of others too, if Dominic Cummings gets his way:

With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently… We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’.”

I’m glad Cummings recognises “We have some extremely able people [in communications]” and is willing to take risks i.e. “we also must upgrade skills across the SpAd network.” If you’ve got the X factor and want to help shape history throughout – what the US Ambassador to the UK calls – the roaring twenties, find out more and apply here.

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This piece was written for our website.